From the Mindscape network: An Interview with Sarah Newton

Back in 2011 I published my first interview with Sarah Newton, RPG designer and author of the SF novel Mindjammer. We talked again two years ago, shortly after she left Cubicle 7 and formed her own company Mindjammer Press. Recently I’ve posted my “first look” of the 2nd Edition of her Mindjammer Roleplaying Game which is currently available for preorder from Modiphius. I thought this would would be the perfect opportunity to have a chat with her again.

Stargazer: Hi Sarah. At first I want to thank you for taking your time to answer a couple of questions for us again, Sarah. How have you been?

Sarah: Very good, thanks, Stargazer! It’s been a terrifically busy couple of years, both with the publication of the first parts of my “Zero Point” campaign for Achtung! Cthulhu, the “Great Game” campaign for Leagues of Adventure, “Burn Shift” for Fate Worlds, Monsters & Magic, and of course Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game at last!

Stargazer: Let’s start with a few questions regarding the rules. The new Mindjammer is using Evil Hat’s Fate Core rules instead of Starblazer Adventures. Is there any difference rules-wise between the Fate implementation in Mindjammer and vanilla Fate Core? Is it possible to easily transfer characters between the old Mindjammer and the new edition?

Sarah: There’s no difference: Mindjammer is a standalone Fate Core game through-and-through, so everything you have for Fate Core will work with Mindjammer, and vice versa. That said, obviously Fate Core is a toolkit, with many dials, and in Mindjammer we’ve taken the decision to set some of those dials for maximum functionality in the far future transhuman science-fiction genre. So, you’ll find that Mindjammer adds a Credit stress track to the Physical and Mental stress tracks; provides guidelines for creating Good (+3) and Superb (+5) characters as well as Great (+4); gives characters a specific “extras budget” for buying extras (and gives lots of examples of extras), and so on. So it’s an “instance” of Fate Core with the dials set for our specific genre – but it’s absolutely Fate Core.

As for transferring characters between Mindjammer editions, that goes pretty much as you’d expect between FATE 3rd edition and Fate Core. Broadly speaking they’re transferrable, but you’ll need to change some skill names and maybe select some new stunts. In particular, the way we’re handling technopsi in Mindjammer 2nd edition is quite different – there’s no longer a Technopsi skill, for example, but rather technopsi is built into the whole system, with stunts and extras to do exotic or high-powered stuff. Also the Fate Core “extras” rules permeate the whole of Mindjammer 2nd edition, meaning that culture and organisations now sit very organically within the rules and also attach to your character sheet very smoothly. But, broadly speaking, you can transfer characters.

Stargazer: Have you ever considered using different rules for Mindjammer? I know roleplaying game fans who are very intrigued by the setting but are not too fond of Fate. Do you think there’ll ever be a Mindjammer book for use with other systems like Chaosium’s BRP or Pinnacle Entertainment’s Savage Worlds?

Sarah: It’s a good question. Before writing Mindjammer 1st edition for Fate, I’d considered writing it for BRP and even Traveller. But I kept coming back to the same problems – the need to build in the cultures rules seamlessly, to allow characters to affect big campaign elements like organisations, governments, and cultures, to lead armies, to manipulate cultures, and to interact with some very large synthetic intelligences and posthuman entities. I found myself faced with the need to write enormous amounts of rules both for Traveller and BRP to even begin to start what I wanted to – to the extent that the game would initially have to miss out large areas of potential setting action to make a feasible book.

Fate – and especially Fate Core – with the Fate Fractal and the new “extras” rules, gives you tools which allow you to do this stuff very easily, moving between scales seamlessly, and affecting the game universe in a very manageable and elegant way. That means that in just one single book – the new Mindjammer core book – we can provide all the rules you’ll need for this stuff: starships, constructs, worlds, civilisations, cultures, organisations, alien life, exointelligences, transhumanism and “going post”, all with a single unified mechanic and as much diallable crunch as you like. It’s a very powerful ruleset – and one which feels *perfect* for what I wanted to do with Mindjammer.

That’s not to say we’ll never consider setting books for other rules systems; people have asked us about Traveller, BRP, and Savage Worlds already. It’s just that, out of the box, those setting books would have to focus on more limited activities within the Commonality, or we’d have to write a *lot* of new rules. Perhaps it’s something for a Kickstarter at some point, to see if there’s enough interest to warrant producing a book. For now, I’m very keen to produce more supplements exploring the New Commonality setting with the Fate Core ruleset.

Stargazer: Enough about rules! Let’s now talk about the Mindjammer universe. The setting of Mindjammer is extremely deep and detailed. While reading your novel I was very intrigued by all the cool stuff you’ve come up with but I also felt  sometimes overwhelmed. What can players and GMs do to ease into the setting?

Sarah: I think the trick is to not sweat it: at root, Mindjammer is a very open setting, and actually very easy to get into. I always tell people: use the game and the setting to play just the type of SF you want to, the New Commonality can handle it! Military scifi, exploration, trading campaigns, cyberpunk, transhumanism, intrigue – it’s all there. Sure, the Core Worlds of the Commonality are very exotic, but the Fringe is very varied, and there are parts which are like any scifi setting you feel comfortable with. The Technology chapter of Mindjammer lists just over a dozen “technological paradigms” – they’re the technological assumptions of the game and the setting, such as “Ubiquitous Intelligence”, or “Abundant Power”. You can keep those in front of you when describing the setting, and as long as you don’t break them you’ll be “right” every time. And, hey, if you want to break the paradigms – well, Your Commonality Will Vary!

Also, Mindjammer provides lots of examples for play – including pregenerated characters and even planets, and a whole chapter on the kinds of games you can play. It’s a big setting, but it’s no more complex than, say, Traveller’s Imperium or Warhammer 40K’s Imperium, or the Star Wars Empire. You should feel comfortable improvising within it and making it your own.

Stargazer: Can you tell us about your future plans for Mindjammer? Will there be supplements further detailing the Commonality Era?

Sarah: I hope so! As long as people would like to see new material, I’ll be writing it. We have three scenarios in the pipeline right now, which should be appearing rapidly in the coming months. After that we have campaign packs, including a “Solenine” sourcebook so you can play your own version of the events of the Mindjammer novel, and a selection of Commonality atlases and sourcebooks. There’s enough material sketched out or already written to keep us going for a good number of years if people would like to see it!

Stargazer: A lot of GMs love to write their own settings. What is your approach to setting design? Could you give us a few hints on how you designed the Mindjammer setting?

Sarah: I always start with a very simple “what if”. It’s good to set yourself boundaries, as otherwise your options are pretty much bewilderingly infinite when starting off. Ask yourself one very clear question. With Mindjammer, I asked myself, “How could you have a hyperadvanced transhuman interstellar civilisation which was still comprehensible to 21st century humans?” That was my starting point. I mean, however you look at things, the speed of our technological advancements suggests that we’ll stop being human and become “something else” (and far beyond our ability to understand) long before we leave this planet, let alone travel to the stars – unless we take control of things. I still haven’t finished answering that one simple question; it keeps churning out oceans of new ideas and material.

Also, settings are about people, not just in isolation at a moment in time, but over a long period of time – throughout “history”. When I think about a setting, I usually work backwards and forwards a bit from my “present moment”, to find out what happened to my setting before, how it got to today, and where it’s going next. Sometimes, when you first think of a setting, you may not have the best historical moment in mind for making a cool RPG setting. Maybe it’s too early in the setting’s history, or too late; maybe all the cool stuff has already happened, or is going to happen. When you’re creating a setting, don’t be afraid to massively shift the “present day” forwards or backwards if that’s going to make for something that’s more awesome to play. For example, the New Commonality Era is actually somewhere between 1000 and 3000 years *before* what I initially imagined would be the present-day of the setting. I have an idea of what *might* happen next, but I’m also really excited that the setting may develop in such a way that the future I initially imagined might never come to pass. That’s great fun!

Stargazer: In most transhumanist settings the transfer of people’s consciousness into new bodies is a common trope. In Mindjammer there are thanatograms which are kind of similar but transferring a living consciousness into a new body is not possible. What are the reasons for this?

Sarah: Science is the reason. To be honest, I’d disagree that transferring consciousness is a feature of most transhumanist settings; it’s a feature of a couple of well-known RPGs, but that’s all. The defining focal point of transhumanism – and especially transhumanist literature – is what human beings will become – how humans will stop being human and become “something else”. It’s all about identity, personality, individuality, and so on.

With Mindjammer, I’ve always been very keen to make sure the setting is as much as possible based on extrapolations of “real” science – our current scientific understanding. I may not know how planing engines work, or how the Mindscape codes thoughtcasts and exomemories, but theoretically all that stuff is possible. However, the transfer of consciousness between bodies isn’t considered to be scientifically possible; for me, it takes science-fiction a little too far into the realm of science-fantasy. It’s an attractive idea – that we can upload ourselves into some kind of internet and live forever – but the concept isn’t supported at all by current theories of consciousness. Everything we know (and it’s not much, admittedly) about consciousness suggests that things are in no way that simple – consciousness appears to emerge from a concatenation of physical elements, and may even depend upon quantum phenomena – in other words, consciousness emerges from a brain in a body, however you define them. Consciousness is in no way simply a matter of a bunch of memories or personality engrams being shunted around a computational substrate.

So, it’s a lot more complex than that, and Mindjammer accepts that complexity. It’s possible for example to upload thoughts, memories, and even personality elements to the “Mindscape”, the vast data storage and communications medium of the Mindjammer setting. You can even create synthetic intelligences whose personalities are based on memories and personality elements downloaded from that Mindscape, so that they “remember” things which happened to other people, and have personalities and memories which are derived from other people (often dead people).

But, those synthetic beings aren’t the *same people* as the dead people whose memories and personality elements they’re based on. They’re new and discrete individuals. It’s the same principle as Rachel in Blade Runner.

So, if you uploaded your personality and memories to the Mindscape before death, then another being used them for its own self, that new being wouldn’t “be” you – you’d still be dead. But that’s where things get interesting. You can have synthetic intelligences – Mindjammer calls them eidolons – who can malfunction and mistakenly believe they *are* the “reincarnations” or continuations of their sources, even though they’re not. And some synthetic beings may not even care – they could upload themselves to the Mindscape before being destroyed, and not care that they’re about to effectively die before another being continues with their personality.

These are issues which are present in Mindjammer – you don’t have to include them in your game, but I believe they’re part of what makes transhumanism so compelling, and you can play out these situations and debates in your characters and adventures – and come to your own conclusions. But only if you want – you can quite easily take the paradigms as absolute and play action-packed sci-fi without any of this stuff! I think that’s important; science-fiction RPGs should let you roleplay complex ideas if you like, but just as much they should also let you fly around in your starship being heroic and blowing stuff up. Mindjammer does that.

Stargazer: I have been a SF fan since my childhood but when it comes to roleplaying I have mostly played fantasy games. In my experience getting people to play in SF games is sometimes impossible. The vast majority of gamers prefers fantasy. What do you think why this is the case? What “trick” do you use to convince people to give SF or Space Opera a chance?

Sarah: To be honest, in contrast to sci-fi novels and movies, a lot of sci-fi gaming has traditionally been very flat – very fixated on quite mundane events, like fixing an airlock, tracking fuel consumption, or trading some crates of Handwavium for “cash”. When I play an RPG I want to play heroes, people doing amazing things. I want a sense of wonder – of unlimited tomorrows, unexplored frontiers, wondering what amazing stuff is going to happen next. Fantasy automatically comes with a built-in “anything is possible” vibe; in my opinion science-fiction RPGs should have that too. Think of your favourite SF movies or novels – they usually leave you breathless with amazement at their imagination and daring ideas, right? I think SF RPGs should make an effort to incorporate that. It’s certainly something I’ve tried to build into Mindjammer – the book itself, the things your characters can do, the ways they can change, and the nature of the cosmos around them, should be filled with wonder and awesome (and often terrifying) stuff. Just because science-fiction is based off extrapolations of real science doesn’t mean it should be in any way boring or not filled with awesome action-packed adventure!

In Mindjammer, your characters can be like you: human beings exploring the amazing universe around them, and being changed by it. You can play the personality of a dead fighter pilot reinstantiated inside a sentient starship; or a human being who suddenly finds himself practically immortal, with all kinds of new genetic abilities; or a roguish thief from some ghetto world backwater who lives on her wits – and then finds herself with uncanny powers gifted to her via the Mindscape. And all these characters can achieve great things – they can change their world, affect whole cultures, even decide on the shape of the entire future. That IMHO is what good sci-fi roleplaying should be about.

Stargazer: Before concluding the interview I’d love to talk about your other projects a bit. I’ve recently read somewhere that there will be 2nd Edition of The Chronicles of Future Earth. Is this rumor true? And if so what can you tell us about it?

Sarah: Yes, it’s true! We’ve been delayed announcing what we’re doing with Chronicles because of the work on Mindjammer, but hopefully in the next few weeks we’ll be making the plans public. Suffice it to say there’ll be a brand newChronicles sourcebook hitting the shelves later this year or early in 2015. It won’t be standalone – it’ll be for a very well-known d100 game, but will be a huge leap forward from the 1st edition, a complete sourcebook rather than an introductory booklet. Imagine what we’ve done with Mindjammer, and apply that to Chronicles. I’ve been working on it for over a year, and it’s almost written; I’m now looking forwards to seeing what we can do with cool art and layout and some gorgeous maps. There’ll also be a Chronicles novel, almost finished at the moment, to give you a feel for Future Earth.

Stargazer: Since I read your first Mindjammer novel I was very excited about a sequel. Can you give us an update? Will there still be a 2nd novel and what will it be about?

Sarah: Yes, there are two more novels in the Mindjammer series, the second of which is about half complete. It follows the stories of all the main characters of the first novel – so you can see what happens to Max and Lyra, Clay, and even Stark – and also introduces several new main characters into the mix. It’s set about a year after the events of the first Mindjammer novel, and gives you a glimpse into the Core and even Old Earth, as well as some spectacular and mysterious events happening out in the Rim Sector.

After the third novel, I have two collections of short stories in the offing; the first traces the complex history of the Commonality and the Venu, and tries to understand why things went so badly; and the second showcases the many different sectors and civilisations which fall under the Commonality umbrella. I’m looking forwards to getting to work on those – so much to write!

Stargazer: What other projects are you working on right now?

Sarah: Right now I’m also working on parts 3 and 4 of the Zero Point campaign for Achtung! Cthulhu, which is great fun; the third scenario takes place in wartime Istanbul, a real nest of spies. We’re also working on the re-launch of Monsters & Magic with our new distributor, Modiphius Entertainment, and supplements for the game releasing later this year. Some exciting products to come!

Stargazer: Thanks for taking your time to answer our questions! As always it’s a pleasure to have you on Stargazer’s World. The team of Stargazer’s World wishes you all the best with all your current and future projects!

Sarah: Thanks so much for having me, Stargazer, and for such great questions! Happy gaming!